Photograph of St. Luke’s Cultural Heritage Centre at present. (Source: Lee Everts)
Everything old is new again. Those words perfectly reflect the situation for St. Luke’s Cultural Heritage Centre. Now almost a year old, the Centre has already demonstrated a needed role for hosting events in the Placentia area. Although not long ago, as many would recall, prior to being a cultural heritage centre, St. Luke’s functioned as a church. And since its inception centuries ago, this church has had a multifarious history, rich in details and complexity.
History of St. Luke’s
The most recent incarnation of St. Luke’s was a church built in 1905. However, it replaces a church built in the 18th century. And still deeper into the realm of history, this church was itself built on the site of the oldest Catholic church in Newfoundland. This original church was built in 1689 by the Récollets (Recollects) friars. However, there is an old map dated from 1662 that actually depicts a church built on the site where St. Luke’s is located. Yet, the church is potentially at least a century older.
This is an image of Domingo de Luca’s Last Will and Testament (Source: Placentia Area Historical Society)
Domingo de Luca was a member of a fishing expedition hailing from the Basque country. At the time, the Basques were in Placentia. It was no doubt part of a regular trip they would have been taking annually to Placentia where they would come to fish in the sixteenth century. Misfortune has fallen on Domingo de Luca during the year 1563. He had grown ill and eventually, he was to lose his life. However, before dying, he made out a Will and most notably, he requested that his body be laid to rest in Placentia.
“I ask that if the will of God Our Lord were served to take me by this illness from the present life, that my body be buried in this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.”
His Will is now the oldest known original civil document written in Canada. Clearly, this must have been a place where his fellow countrymen had been laid to rest. It also implies there was indeed a location, at the time, where the Basque were laying to rest their people. It is no doubt the same location where Basque headstones were later located in the cemetery surrounding St. Luke’s. It was a Roman Catholic church at the time.
In 1903, Rt. Rev. Michael Francis Howley published a paper covering the work he had done in Placentia at St. Luke’s Anglican church. His efforts were in part intended to raise awareness to the fragile nature of the stones and how, if left, they would soon be lost. He focussed on several headstones, the oldest of which dated to 1676. However, one would assume this to be the identical location where, just over a century earlier, Domingo was laid to rest. Those Basque headstones are now on display at O’Reilly House Museum.
An image of Richard Welsh’s grave marker (Source: Lee Everts)
St. Luke’s cemetery has also been home to other noteworthy citizens of Placentia. One of the headstones belong to Richard Welsh, a well-known figure who hailed from New Ross, Ireland. In 1753, Welsh began what was to become a highly successful merchant firm in Placentia. The headstones also tell of people such as Sir Joseph Blackburn or Elizabeth and William Hobson whose memories are also affirmed in the cemetery.
Image of St. Luke’s Anglican church built in the eighteenth century.
Not long afterwards, the English royalty of the 18th century also left its mark when Prince William Henry (later King William IV of England) came to Placentia as a Magistrate. In 1786, he presented the church with a silver Communion Service and a Coat of Arms. While the Service is now at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, the Coat of Arms is still to be found hanging in St. Luke’s Anglican church.
Next Evolution of St. Luke’s
Given its wealth of history, St. Luke’s Anglican Church was designated as a Registered Heritage Structure in 2011. However, the actual parishioners for the church had been dwindling and in October of 2020, it was closed and deconsecrated. It was then sold to the Placentia Area Historical Society (PAHS) for one dollar.
In recent years, during the summer months, the PAHS has been offering tours of the Centre. In the past year, several events were offered, including workshops for seniors by the Placentia Area Development Association and it served as a workspace for Colleen Tamblyn, as archaeologist working on ceramics from Fort Louis/New Fort. She also did two presentations at St. Luke’s entitled “Archaeological Ups and Downs” as well as “Ceramic, Colour and Community.” The Centre was also used for a book launch by local author Lee Everts, an international harpist who did a performance, individuals attending art classes and lectures, and an Escape Room Game in which the players solved puzzles to complete it.
Over the centuries, St. Luke’s has continued to evolve. Yet, from its origins some time in the sixteenth century as a place of worship for Basque fisherman thousands of miles from home to now, as a centre for cultural heritage, it is much the same. St. Luke’s remains at the heart of the community, a place where people come to express themselves, share and find some sort of peace.
Barkham, Michael M. 2014 “The Oldest Original Civil Document Written in Canada: The Last Will of Basque Sailor Domingo de Luça, Placentia (Newfoundland), 1563” University of Cambridge